By Katherine (Kate) Pangilinan
A multimedia feature on New York City’s spoken word poetry community. This is the final project for my Fall 2014 multimedia journalism class. You can read the original article here.
When Sore Agbaje moved from Nigeria at the age of 8, she did not understand why. A visa lottery her father won, a proverbial golden ticket, brought her and her family to Jamaica, Queens with the promise of a better, fairer education. Tucked in the privacy of her room, this shy girl crafted poetry that was destined to be spoken on a stage as prestigious as Lincoln Center.
She just didn’t realize this quite yet.
From Talent to Vocation
“Our music appreciation teacher–I forgot his name–he took us to Lincoln Center to see an opera,” she says, recalling her first visit to that world-renowned arts center. “And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, could I ever perform here? Nah, I can’t… like, what would I do?'”
Though she was already an accomplished poet in high school, having won her senior year’s poetry slam and the 2012 Silver Key Award from Scholastic Art and Writing, spoken word was still just a tool for self-expression.
Like most young adults and teenagers, a younger Agbaje saw spoken word poetry as a therapeutic form of self-expression, and a medium to helped foster self-confidence. But in New York City, the art has grown and become a method of inspiring an interest in literacy and language arts within students.
In the last few weeks of high school, Agbaje had developed an innate understanding that spoken word poetry could do more than just alleviate her shyness or the stress of personal issues. After she graduated, she knew she wanted to take her art seriously.
However, pressure from her parents, who had left a well to do life behind in Nigera to start from scratch, wanted her to balance art and education.
“I’ve grown up with very strict parents, and they have supported my art. But they haven’t made it easy,” she says. “After I graduated I felt like I needed to do something with my art, something important. I had this drive, and I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to start. I was very lost.”
The Urban Word
Two weeks after graduation, she found Urban Word NYC—a non-profit dedicated to utilizing spoken word poetry as a way to promote literacy to young New Yorkers.
“It was great to be embraced—immediately embraced—by people, and to have people appreciate my work and help me grow,” she says. “When you’re by yourself, you tend to think, ‘Oh my gosh, my poetry is so great,’ so when you’re in a group and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s poetry is so great,’ it’s no longer just about you. It’s about what you’re creating. That space. That community that’s there.”
Today, at the young age of 19, Agbaje’s art has brought her twice to the stage at Lincoln Center to compete in the Youth Poet Laureate Poetry Slam. Through Urban Word’s internship, poetry workshops, and mentorship program, Agbaje became empowered by her art in a very different way.
“My first time doing YPL, it was a great feeling,” she recalls of the 2014 competition. “This was my first slam outside of school. I was 18 or 17 and it was the first time I felt like, wow I’m doing something. Poetry can get me into places that I never thought I could get to. It was interesting to see the full circle of life—like, I am actually at Lincoln Center. I am actually performing.”
She placed as a finalist in both years, and currently holds the title of 2015 Youth Poet Ambassador of New York City. Aside from Lincoln Center, Agbaje has also gone to perform for the Secretary General of the United Nation at the 2014 International Youth Day Conference in New York City, and the Cyphers for Justice and Peace Conference at Columbia University.
Aaya Perez, one of Urban Word NYC’s Youth Board members, has been a part of the non-profit for four years and also attests to the good that their program has done for the youth.
“Urban Word is such an interesting kid of place. You don’t get a lot of places that give so much voice to the people they’re servicing,” she says. “Here, if you are passionate about what you do and you’re within age range [14 to 19] and you want to help other people do what they’re doing and improve themselves, then you can help out with that.”
A Message, A Lesson
The journey to becoming an educator follows a similar path of discovery, passion, and action.
Mason Granger, creator of poetry slam locator app SlamFind and producer at Mayhem Poets, recalled how he made the jump from future-marine biologist to full-time poet and educator along side founders Kyle Sutton and Scott Tarazevits.
“We met at Rutgers University and there was an open mike there that we started. And once we graduated out of there we said we wanted to keep doing this,” he recalls. “So then we started going into our friends’ English classes when they would do their poetry section, and they went well. And then we went, ‘Alright, maybe we can make a living out of this.’ And so we submitted materials to school districts, PTAs and colleges, and we’ve been making a living doing this for the past 9 years.”
The Mayhem Poets, another poetry organization, was formed in 2000 with the intent to reshape society’s view of poetry. Slam Chops, a program developed under The Mayhem Poets, is a New York City based educational training operation meant to provide opportunities for aspiring poets.
In one of his pieces called “Food Fight,” which Granger performed at one of Urbana Poetry‘s weekly open mike nights at the Sidewalk Café, he embellished on popular children’s foods in order to detail the war-like destructiveness of their fatty contents.
“For me, the most rewarding part of this is when I have a good time, when everyone else in the crowd has a good time, yet still an actual message was conveyed,” he adds. “And if all three of those things happen, then the show was successful.”
In Briarwood, Queens, Archbishop Molloy High School English teacher Matt Kilkelly finds a different sort of inspiration. Though the weekly writing group called Lit Mag is student-operated, KilKelly has acted as moderator and advisor for the club for more than a decade.
“One of the most rewarding aspects is when students tell me how they found their own individual voice through Lit Mag,” he says “They become more skillful in their craft, but mostly I see them become more confident in their abilities. Prior to this, they were very shy and didn’t believe they had any talent.”
High school senior and first time slammer Emma Koosis, performed her first competitive piece also at the Sidewalk Café during their Tuesday night open mike.
“It was scarier than I thought it would be and less scary than I thought it would be,” she says about the experience. “I think it’s really empowering to be able to get up there and say things that are true for you and may be true for other people too.”
Agbaje shared similar sentiments.
“I’ve been writing in my room and I never thought it would go anywhere, but people actually want to hear what I want to say. People—their perspective and the way they see life—can actually change by just listening to words.”